There is one good reason to watch NBC's new spy thriller "Allegiance," which premieres Thursday, and that's Hope Davis.
A performer of controlled and relatable intensity, Davis brings a vivid humanity to every role she plays. And if, in early episodes, "Allegiance" creator George Nolfi puts her through an overly arduous obstacle course of plot, well, Davis is also remarkably light on her feet.
Set in contemporary New York, "Allegiance" revolves around Katya O'Connor (Davis), a KGB agent who fell in love years ago while recruiting Mark O'Connor (Scott Cohen), an American businessman. Allowed to marry him only if she remained a KGB asset, Katya moved with Mark to America, where they raised three children without, apparently, hearing so much as a peep out of Moscow.
Indeed, Katya was so certain she was out of the game that she could only beam with pride when her son Alex (Gavin Stenhouse) joined the CIA with a specialty in Russian affairs.
"Aha!" you say, astutely — and in unison with some of the crazier elements of Russian intelligence, wicked men who still long to bring America to its knees. (Like an increasing number of American shows, "Allegiance" employs a lot of subtitles, which means you have to pay attention.)
Katya is reactivated and thrust into a real maternal bind: In order to save Alex and the rest of her family from a) the knowledge that Mom is a Russian spy and b) death, she and Mark must spy on him.
Because, like every brand-new CIA recruit, Alex finds himself instantly embroiled in a case involving a brutally murdered KGB agent and a missing set of computer files that could (see above) bring America to its knees.
Comparisons to the FX spy thriller "The Americans" are inevitable but, as quickly becomes clear, absurd. "The Americans" is a character-driven, morality-exploring drama about a pair of KGB agents who have infiltrated the United States during the Cold War and are actively, if with some moments of reluctance, gathering intelligence for their native land.
"Allegiance" is a far more plot-driven look at the dangers of making a deal with the devil — and then attempting to keep it a secret by playing both sides. (Katya and Mark agree to spy on Alex in the belief that they can tailor the intel they pass on to avoid harming him or any other Americans.)
The sight of Mom going into spy mode to outsmart her very smart son is certainly intriguing, and the O'Connors' marriage is a complex balance of power and accommodation that Davis and Cohen manage to make, in early episodes, believable and even universal. More important, Katya is a new and welcome character; female spies are still too often creatures of kick-ass sexuality.
Though certainly attractive and undeniably fierce, Katya is very much a mother, occasionally to excess (although she isn't in the kitchen stuffing a pirogi, she does worry a lot about Alex's sleep and eating habits). Even with the thick Russian accent, Davis manages to keep it real.
Her relationship with her older daughter, Natalie (Margarita Levieva), is equally promising, though Natalie, also recruited as a Russian agent, is in the unenviable position of heating up the series by falling for the family's Russian handler (Morgan Spector), whose name, of course, is Victor.
Early episodes are, regrettably, filled with television tropes (Alex has an Asperger-like brilliance, a wise-cracking mentor and an attractive female partner) and a few accidentally hilarious film references (the third episode involves the Masonic Temple in Philadelphia where it is difficult not to scan the crowd for Nicolas Cage and the "National Treasure" team).
Still, "Allegiance" could evolve into the show it clearly hopes to be. But only if it plays to its strength, which is to say Hope Davis.
When: 10 p.m. Thursday